Anyone who has ever given birth can attest that the grueling transformation that takes place during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum is undeniably one of the biggest, most intense experiences of their lives. But so many clients ask, "What is labor like? What does it feel like?" As someone who has given birth four times, how do I adequately explain it? What can I compare to the sensations of opening and releasing, of expansion and contraction? How do I describe the feeling of being overwhelmed while being in control, the idea of working alone while surrounded by a circle of supporters?
Birth is just like a marathon
I adopted this description a couple of years ago after realizing how many similarities birth and marathons have in common. I only loved this comparison more when a University of Michigan study came out this year that declared that giving birth can actually be harder than running a marathon. But what does running a marathon and giving birth really have in common (especially for those of us who aren't exactly, ahem, running types)? Discovering what actual marathon runners have to say about running and applying their wisdom to birth was quite enlightening.
"You should run your first marathon for the right reasons, because you'll never be the same person again. You must want to do it, not do it because your boss did it or your spouse did it." - Bill Wenmark, running coach
There is no way you could catch me running a marathon because I WANT to. In fact, I absolutely DO NOT want to run a marathon. Ever. COULD I run a marathon? I have no doubt I could--but it would not be my most glorious memory ever. In a lot of ways, birth is dependent on personal desire. Not just IF you want to do it (cuz you kinda have to if you've got a bun in the oven) but how you want to go about doing it. Now let me be clear--we aren't just talking about natural birth, although personal desire is the number one motivating factor in having an intentional natural birth. But you cannot go into birth expecting to do it a certain way just because someone you know did it, or you perceive it to be the way you should do it, or the way someone else wants you to do it. One big difference between a marathon and birth is this: there are no winners or losers, no failure, no shortcoming in birth. But finding the best way for you to run your marathon the way you want to will drive you to finish the act of giving birth when the going gets tough--which it almost certainly will.
"I've learned that finishing a marathon isn't just an athletic achievement. It's a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible." - John Hanc, running writer
Ever seen the episode of How I Met Your Mother when Marshall is training for the New York Marathon? He reads all these running books, and one of the things he learns to do is to repeat positive affirmations to himself (in the mirror) on a daily basis. Well guess who else can benefit from doing this?? Pregnant women! Part of my work as a childbirth educator is to help eliminate the culture of fear surrounding birth; to help women build their sense of strength and confidence in their ability to birth their babies however they choose. This involves not only creating a positive state of mind regarding birth, but also eliminating negative voices implying failure, fear, or harm. Is a marathon a scary event to be avoided?? No! (Well, for me it might be.)
"Virtually everyone who tries the marathon has put in training over months, and it is that exercise and that commitment, physical and mental, that gives meaning to the medal, not just the day’s effort, be it fast or slow." - Mary R. Wittenberg, former president, New York Road Runners Club
Who can literally jump off their couch and run a marathon without any physical preparation? The answer: no one (except for Barney, if you watch that marathon episode of How I Met Your Mother). Just like a marathon, birth requires physical preparation. Pregnant women should be exercising no less than they were prior to pregnancy, which involves a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. And just like a runner prepares for a marathon, a pregnant woman should prepare for labor by eating lots and lots of protein (the body needs long-lasting fuel that will build the growing muscle mass in her and her baby's body) in the months leading up to labor--aiming for 100 grams a day. And then, just like the night before a big run, she should switch to carb loading during labor--carbohydrates will provide fast, short bursts of easy-to-use fuel which is exactly what the body needs during intense physical exercise!
"I tell our runners to divide the race into thirds. Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart." - Mike Fanelli, running club coach
Funny, isn't it, that labor is broken into thirds too--early labor, where there's plenty of time to think and be aware, active labor, that requires more concentration, and transition that involves a total surrender to the process. "If you feel bad at 10 miles, you're in trouble. If you feel bad at 20 miles, you're normal. If you don't feel bad at 26 miles, you're abnormal," Rob de Castella, the winner of the 1983 World Marathon Championships said. Huh. Sounds about right. One of the most common mantras we use during birth is to take one contraction at a time--don't think about how many you have left or how long this could last. Do the one you have to do right now. How interesting that Ryan Hall, a U.S. Olympic marathoner thinks the same thing about running a marathon: "I don't think about the miles that are coming down the road, I don't think about the mile I'm on right now, I don't think about the miles I've already covered. I think about what I'm doing right now, just being lost in the moment."
The Pain is Productive
"At mile 20, I thought I was dead. At mile 22, I wished I was dead. At mile 24, I knew I was dead. At mile 26.2, I realized I had become too tough to kill." - Unknown
I couldn't tell you the number of times a mom has looked at me and said, "This hurts so bad I just don't think I can do this anymore!" There are only two things (that I can think of!) that are painful but NOT inherently harmful to our bodies: birth and exercise. Just like working out, birth is creating a change in muscular structures that have to exert significant effort to create that change. In fact, the pain of labor is credited in large part to the emission of lactic acid--the chemical that builds up in the muscles when they are tightened and released over and over. Ever been super sore the day after working out? Yup--just like labor, the pain comes from the lactic acid build up in the muscles. And just like a marathon runner experiences the oxytocin and endorphin high of running across that finish line, the incredible feeling of relief after giving birth is what makes people do it again!
"The thirst you feel in your throat and lungs will be gone minutes after the race is over. The pain in your legs within days, but the glory of your finish will last forever." - Unknown
"There isn't a trophy for giving birth!" Um, excuse me?? I have heard this statement specifically made about natural childbirth ("there's no special reward for giving birth naturally!") but I beg to differ. First, it's much more complex than getting a reward if you go without meds, and no reward if you don't--remember when I said there is no failure or losing in childbirth?? That must mean that EVERYBODY wins!! At the end of birth, you have just accomplished an incredible feat of nature, no matter how you go about accomplishing it. And the relief you get from finally being DONE after the long months of building a baby, and finally having your baby in your arms and out of your body is your trophy. Plus, the nice rush of endorphin-producing oxytocin you get is pretty awesome too. Although with that relief is often a convincing declaration, "I'm NEVER doing this again!" (Even though you'll gradually forget the pain, and your ovaries will start to quiver every time you see a baby.) After winning her first New York Marathon Grete Waltz declared, "I'm never going to run this again." And then she went on to run and win eight more.
So the bottom line is...if you are giving birth, you are basically an extreme athlete, no matter how you go about it. And just like any other athlete, you need a coach! And luckily, that's what we are here for. We're the ones who will get you a cool washcloth to wipe the sweat off your face, we are your water stop, the ones reminding you that you can do it from the sidelines, the team car rolling along next to you in case you need more help. Please let us know if there is any way we can help support you as you train, prepare for, and run your birth marathon!
This is us.
We are Women. We are Moms. We are here to help your family blossom.